How-to: Pruning Landscape Trees & Shrubs

A young woman using hand pruners to trim a tree in winter
My Garden Life
January 16, 2017
Table of Contents

Benefits of Pruning

Regular pruning of trees and shrubs has many benefits.

  • It helps maintain the original design of a garden space by keeping trees and shrubs to a certain size.
  • Shrubs planted near a house or fence often outgrow their space and need to be pruned to remove branches that may be crowding a structure.
  • More importantly, pruning encourages fuller, healthier plants. It results in more foliage, more blooms to attract pollinators, and more fruits for you and any creatures you might share them with.
  • A good clip here and there can also remove diseased areas and help avoid future issues by allowing more air flow through the plant.

The following pruning guidelines apply to the majority of woody, landscape trees and shrubs. These tips are specific to the pruning of individual shoots or branches and not to shearing, which involves the removal of multiple branch tips with each clip or pass of the tool – think English garden hedge. Spring flowering plants are best pruned right after flowering. Those that flower in summer or autumn are best pruned in late winter or very early spring.

How and Where to Start

Pruning cuts should be made about ¼ to ½” above a leaf node. A “node” is the spot where a leaf emerges from the stem. New branches will emerge from the nodes. You can even force the new branches to grow in a certain direction based on where you make your cut. Nodes that are on the outside of a branch will grow outward and away from the main branch. Nodes facing inward, toward the center of the tree or shrub will grow that direction. Keeping this in mind as you prune allows you to make decisions about the future shape of the shrub. Also, it’s best to make all of your cuts at an angle, with the cut edge facing the interior of the plant so that it’s less visible.

Example of pruning trees.

The place to start pruning is always with dead, damaged or diseased branches. This should be followed by the removal of any “water sprouts”. Water sprouts are branches that shoot straight up rather than following the natural branching habit of the plant. They often emerge at the base of a tree or shrub, near the roots but can pop up along branches too. After this you’ll want to step back and look for any crossing/rubbing branches and remove them, with thought to not leaving any huge holes. If there seems to be an overabundance of branches in any particular area these can be removed as well. This will help keep air flowing through the plant. Finally, you may want to trim back around the entire plant to reduce its size and encourage lush outer growth.

Red Dogwood Shrub Pruned Back

Overdue Pruning

If a plant has not been pruned for a very long time you may need to prune it in stages. Start by pruning away a third of the branches. Then the next season prune away another third. Continue this each season until you have the plant to the size you want. Shrubs that are fast growers can simply be cut back to 3 to 12″ high and given a fresh start.

Pruning Tools

The most common tools for home pruning are:

Hand pruners – for branches 2/3″ diameter or less

Loppers – these have long handles and provide more leverage to cut thicker and/or tougher branches

Pruning Saw – Large branches that are too big for pruners or loppers and will need to be sawed.

Tree Pole Pruner – Great for cutting high branches that are 1-1 ½” in diameter or less. Reminder: when you use a pole pruner you should be standing firmly on the ground and work only on branches within the reach of the pole. Standing on a ladder or any other elevated surface using a pole pruner is dangerous. Don’t do it. Also be aware that high branches could fall on you causing injury. Wearing eye protection and a hard hat can offer some protection. Branch removal or pruning high in trees is usually best left to professional tree trimmers with the experience and equipment to do the job safely and correctly.

Hand Pruners	Loppers Pruning Saw	Tree Pole Pruner
Hand Pruners Loppers Pruning Saw Tree Pole Pruner

Take Care of Pruning Tools

It’s important to use sharp cutting tools when pruning. Rough, ragged cuts are not only unattractive, the wounds created when the bark surrounding the cut is torn or stripped away can take longer to heal, allowing time for insects or disease to set in. Using sharp tools is also easier on you, especially if you’re doing a lot of pruning or the branches are thick. Dull blades require more hand pressure to successfully cut through a branch. It’s easy to keep a clean, sharp edge on your pruning tools. Learn more in our article How to Sharpen Garden Tools.  

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